I was really sad to read that so many Beyond Blue readers don’t have four friends whom they could ask to compile lists of positive qualities in order to start a self-esteem file. It seemed that almost one-fourth of the comments on the message board of my “Video: My Self-Esteem file” pointed to the sad reality that many people are without a large group of friends.
Although I have experienced almost every other symptom of depression, I have been able to, for the most part, escape loneliness–except for those months when I couldn’t describe my thoughts and feelings to anyone because they were so ugly.
I think that I have been blessed with so many good friends throughout my life not because I’m so popular, but because I’m really nosy and I lack many of those social graces and proper boundaries that a polite person has.
In the first five minutes of meeting someone, I usually cover my entire psychiatric history. That can be good and bad. It works those afternoons like yesterday when a mom approached me and said, “you look so calm with your children,” and I laughed out loud and said, “I don’t think so, I’m just heavily medicated.” We talked for another hour and covered what meds we were taking, our dosages, what doctors we see, what psych wards we had visited, how long our menstrual cycles last, and what we tell other people with regard to our mood disorders: me … everything, her … nothing.
But my no-edit feature can also have me eating my shoes fairly often with blushed cheeks, sort of like the guy I know who tried to squeeze some information out of his daughter’s future in-laws with a little humor.
“So, Dan, let me ask you . . . what do you do? Now don’t tell me it’s selling Hoover vacuums … Ha ha!”
“As a matter of fact, that’s what I do.”
Swallow….”The check please!”
But I’ve been thinking about this friendship thing a lot since so many readers wondered how they might go about finding the type of friends who would actually take the time to list ten positive qualities for one of their friends in need.
Here are some thoughts that come to mind. But please take these with a grain of salt, because I’m so not “Miss Manners.” In fact, I could write a column called “Miss Tacky” (8 ways to re-gift your undesired presents, 7 techniques to make a person cry, 6 ways to interrupt a conversation, 5 classic insults, etc.)
1. Join a book club.
Am I in one? Hell no. I don’t have time. And if I did, I wouldn’t read novels or a book straight through, from cover to cover. Remember, I suffer from poor concentration and was saved by CliffsNotes back in high school and college. But most of my friends are in them, and, I have to admit, I’m a little envious of the discussions that happen in these groups. They seem so much more interesting than AA. Better coffee too. If your neighborhood doesn’t have a book club, you can usually join one as part of the local library, the recreational or community center, the community college, or online, of course. Many papers will post book club notices, as well. Hey, and you could start one. Then advertise in local coffee shops, recreation centers, etc.
That one seems like a no-brainer, but, seriously, have you ever considered how many charities to which you could give your time? Your local civic association is always in need of volunteers for projects like “let’s clean up the park before a hundred dogs crap on it again” and Greenscape (the same thing), toys-for-tots, Christmas In April, and so on. Don’t forget about all your local politicians who need help with their campaigns. If one impresses you, offer to knock on a few doors for her or him. Host a cheese and cracker party for the community to get to know the candidate. These are not only friend-making possibilities, they are networking opportunities and a chance to give back and feel good about that. Remember that “Seinfeld” episode where Jerry gets a girl’s number off of an AIDS walk? Bingo. That’s what I’m talking about.
3. Go online.
If you’re reading this, you have probably already taken this step! Good for you, because according to a 2002 study published in the “American Journal of Psychiatry“, Internet support groups have been shown to help those suffering from depression. The study followed a group of more than 100 individuals with high severe depression who joined online support groups. Though many had received other forms of treatment, such as face-to-face therapy (86 percent) or antidepressants (96 percent), more than 95 percent of users agreed that participation in the depression Internet support groups helped their symptoms.
“Yeah, but those guys are kids,” you’re thinking to yourself. WRONG. Less than half of Facebook’s 35 million users are college students, and by the end of this year its executives predict less than 30 percent of Facebook users will be sleeping in dorms and eating dining hall food. I’ll get into this more in my next post, but just let me say this: several of my supportive friendships have been born online, and the others (that weren’t born online) have been sustained through online technology.
4. Seek out a support group.
Folks, there’s more than AA out there today. Have you ever looked through all the local listings of meetings in your area? There’s even ACOMP (Adult Cousins of Mean People) … just kidding. At one time, my goal was to attend every single kind of support group. I was thinking that would bring me karma. Now I know that it would only lead to exhaustion. But seriously, for depressed folks there are Recovery meetings (based on Recovery, Inc. founded by Dr. Abraham Low), DRADA (Depression and Related Affective Disorders) groups, NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) groups, DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance) groups. I’ve also considered assertive-training classes at my local YWCA (and they have all sorts of programs) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy groups at the community college.
5. Take a night class.
That’s where you can supposedly meet men (or women) if you find yourself single in your late 30s or 40s or 50s. For example, my one friend was sincerely interested in welding, so she took a class at the college. Naturally, she was the only chick in the class. I asked her if the movie “Flash Dance” (the flick about the Pittsburg woman who held two jobs as a welder/exotic dancer who wants to get into ballet school) had anything to do with her interest in welding. She said no, but she still loves to wear the sweatshirts off of her shoulder. If you take a class in something that you are interested in, you’re very likely to find potential friends with similar hobbies.
6. Get a dog.
I’m not talking about using the dog as a companion, although studies do indicate that pets are natural healers of depression. I just mean that dogs are people magnets–and usually nice-people magnets. A (male) friend of mine wanted to borrow our Lab-Chows when they were puppies because he noticed that when a cute fluffy creature was on one end of the leash, women swarmed around him, kneeling down to pet him (the dog). In Annapolis we have dog cults. If you walk your mutt in certain neighborhoods, you will meet approximately five to ten friends per mile. Double that if you’re walking a Golden Retriever. Triple it if you head to the “dog park,” designed specifically for doggy play, or proper socialization for dogs. (These owners might be wrapped a little too tight in my humble opinion–the kind of parents who buy mechanically-elaborate, safety-insured high chairs for their kids, replete with helmets in case of a drop.) Dog people talk dog language. Horse people talk horse language. And here’s another benefit: if you become psychotic, people will automatically assume you are talking to your dog. Bonus!
7. Steal friends from friends.
I realize this technique was frowned upon in the fifth grade. You would surely earn a reputation as a friend-stealer if you tried this too many times. But many (NOT ALL) people in their 30s, 40s, 50s (skip two decades for the boomers, just kidding) and 80s have loosened up a bit. I have found this to be a very efficient method of making friends, because someone has already done your dirty work–the interview process–and weeded out the toxic folks.
For example, when Eric and I landed in Annapolis ten year ago I knew no one but my husband and his mom. My sister-in-law, Julie, lived in Arlington, Virginia and came up sometimes on the weekends. I’d tag along with her to many of her social events. Julie became a very good friend of mine. We have several common interests and I respect her very much. It was no coincidence, then, that I also liked her friends. So I “adopted” them. Of course, I asked her … “Do you mind if I ask you best friend, Vange, to lunch? I really liked her!” Within a year, Eric and I were hanging out with his sister’s friends and their husbands more than his sister was (and this was okay by her). We were even included in the very elite “game night group,” a cult who gathers to drink, gossip, and eat dessert.
8. Knock on doors.
Yep. That’s what I did six years ago when I was stuck home with a fussy baby and going absolutely crazy. I walked around the neighborhood knocking on every porch that held a stroller. “You in there. I know you have kids. You want to be my friend?” I might have been a tad more subtle, but not much. I hung up signs in coffee shops, in office supply shops, and I told EVERYONE WITH A KID AND THEIR FRIENDS AND RELATIVES that I was started a playgroup on Wednesday mornings, 9 a.m., coffee and doughnuts when I felt generous, to try to regain my sanity. It lasted a year. Every bloody Wednesday it was at my house. Did I try to get other moms to host? Yes. My request was denied, so I finally had enough. But by then, I had found three really good mom friends to whine and laugh with, so I didn’t care about the other guys who had to find a new home to wreck.
9. Carpool to work.
Hey, it works for elementary school kids. Many six-year-olds meet their best buddies on the bus because 1) they live in their neighborhood (what could be more convenient?), 2) they are on the same schedule, and 3) they know the same people (“Susie has cooties.”) Not only is this technique eco-friendly, it makes sense on many levels: you already know a lot about these people (and if you don’t, you can always ask someone in your office who knows them better if they are friend-worthy), they have already been screened for drug use (score!), you already have a few things in common.
10. Attend a conference.
I’m a tad embarrassed to admit this, but I am a conference addict. I love conventions, mostly because I get to feel like a grown-up: there’s a smaller chance of someone vomiting on my shirt (unless she has had a martini too many) than if I stay at home. I’ve met some of my best friends at conferences that I attend on a regular basis like the Religious Bookseller Trade Exhibit, which is more of a retreat than a professional trade show. I try to get there as often as possible, because these get-togethers serve as a reunion of sorts. And I usually fly home with a stack of business cards, or potential friends.
11. Connect with your alumni associations.
I used to be much better at this before kids came along. I still pay my dues. Alumni associations are gold mines for potential friends. You already have a major experience in common: you can rehash old times as a conversation starter if you need one. Plus many associations sponsor community service events, workshops, or trips abroad that you can take advantage of even if you don’t need friends.
12. Talk to strangers.
I know this goes against what you were taught in elementary school. But, yes, the way to meet friends is to strike up a conversation with absolutely anyone. This means becoming the annoying lady everyone dodges on the plane: “So … what are you reading? … Oh, ‘Left Behind.’ … Have you gotten to the part where everyone except a handful of people burn in hell?… No? … I hope I didn’t ruin it for you.”
If you put yourself out there, yes, you will get rejected many times, and that hurts a little (sometimes a lot). But you will also find your best friends and guardian angels! That’s how I met Ann, my guardian angel. I plopped down next to her on an Amtrak train, and not even five minutes outside of New York, we were talking meds, shrinks, and dysfunctional relationships. Had I kept my mouth shut, I would be without one of the most important people in my life today.
Every day life is full of potential friendship moments: waiting rooms (Think shrink! You got something in common right there!), church, trains, planes, automobiles, office meetings, support groups, coffee shops, gynecologist exams (“So tell me, been to a good movie lately?”).
Get on out there!